THE PUZZLER

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In his latest foray into lighthearted, experiential journalism, Jacobs opens with the thrilling discovery that he’d been used as a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle—a thrill lessened somewhat by appearing in the hard-to-solve Saturday edition, “proof that I’m totally obscure, the very embodiment of irrelevance.” Undeterred, the author, a puzzle addict whose interests embrace not just crosswords, but also “mazes, secret codes, riddles, logic puzzles,” and other nerdy pursuits, embarked on a quest to find puzzle makers and solvers in dusty warrens, convention centers, and other venues. TheTimes, he discovered, was late in the game when it came to crosswords, having sniffed that they were “too lowbrow, too frivolous.” Under the guidance of the learned but democratically minded Will Shortz, the paper has become the gold standard of crosswords. Throughout, Jacobs ventures theories on how the puzzles sharpen the brain, help us solve real-world problems, and “are an existential grasp at certainty and closure in an uncertain world.” Sometimes they induce despair, as the author’s early encounters with the Rubik’s Cube reveal. He was hardly more cheered after an international jigsaw-puzzle competition in which he was bested by a “man from Uganda who later told me he is color-blind.” Corn mazes, secret codes, chess gambits, the river-crossing problem, and the Tower of Hanoi: Jacobs is refreshingly captivated by every kind of mental challenge, it seems, and his enthusiasm serves this lively—and puzzle-stuffed—book well. The author even proves to be his own riddler, promising that there is a secret puzzle hidden in the book, the first solver of which will receive $10,000: “I figured I couldn’t write a book on puzzles that didn’t contain a secret one itself.”

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